Over the past couple of decades, autism has undergone a sea change in public perception. Most people now recognize that it’s a spectrum of disorders, not a single rigid condition, and are aware that Dustin Hoffman’s semi-robotic, Oscar-winning performance in Rain Man isn’t exactly representative. On screen, however, characters with autism still rarely amount to much more than an opportunity for a movie star like Ben Affleck (The Accountant) or Denzel Washington (Roman J. Israel, Esq.) to “stretch” by restricting themselves to a narrow behavioral range. The new feel-good indie drama Please Stand By operates in the same sort of calculated, limited mode. Without ever quite specifying what it’s talking about—the vague line “I have a grandson who’s like you” is as close as anyone gets to a direct reference—the movie argues that some people classified on the semi-functioning end of the spectrum may be more capable of autonomy than their families or the medical community believe. It’s hard to be persuasive, though, when your protagonist comes across as a collection of quirky tics rather than a credible human being.
This time, it’s Dakota Fanning who takes on the challenge, staring glassily ahead and delivering dialogue in a metronomic cadence at overly high volume. Her character, Wendy Welcott, resides in an assisted-living center supervised by a woman conveniently named Scottie (Toni Collette), who helps Wendy learn how to make eye contact with others and accept occasional deviations from a very fixed schedule. Why is Scottie conveniently named? Because Wendy’s primary obsession—her version of Raymond Babbitt’s fixation on The People’s Court—is Star Trek. Having learned that Paramount is holding a spec script competition for the franchise, Wendy churns out a 427-page screenplay, then suddenly realizes that a federal holiday means that it won’t arrive in the mail until after the contest deadline. So she decides to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles on her own (well, accompanied by her pet chihuahua, clad in a Star Trek sweater) so that she can hand-deliver the script on time. The contest winner will receive $100,000, but the true prize here, needless to say, is the friends that Wendy makes along the way.
Directed by Ben Lewin (The Sessions) and adapted by Michael Golamco from his own stage play, Please Stand By takes its title from the TV-related phrase that Scottie uses to calm Wendy down when she freaks out. But it also implicitly refers to people’s assumption that Wendy is broken in some way. (Her older sister, played by Alice Eve, is reluctant to even let her meet her newborn niece.) Portraying Wendy as unexpectedly resourceful while acknowledging her genuine vulnerability is tricky; Fanning errs on the side of making her seem so together, apart from some confusion about money, that it’s hard to understand why she was ever considered an assisted-living candidate in the first place. Predictably, Wendy identifies with Spock, but she’s closer to Kirk: someone with standard behavior but an eccentric style of speech. Even her obsession with the contest seems driven less by a Star Trek obsession than by her desire to win the prize money, which she somehow believes will allow her to move back home with her sister. By the time Patton Oswalt shows up for a winking cameo as a cop who defuses a situation by speaking to Wendy in Klingon, Please Stand By has lost all touch with reality. It’s just another instance of equating autism with kookiness.